Friday, September 22, 2006

Calder at Conference

A rather self-indulgent column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Books galore

Books of Liberal Democrat essays are like buses: you wait for ages for one to come along and then three turn up at once. Actually, Brighton buses aren’t quite like that. In my experience three buses turn up as you approach the stop and leave before you can catch any of them. You then wait 20 minutes for another one to show.

Yet the buses have their compensations. Brighton may not have trams, which are one of the few good things about Blackpool – come to think of it, they are the only good thing about Blackpool – but at least its buses have names. This week I have ridden on Lord Cohen, C. B. Cochrane and William Friese Greene.

I suppose Lord Cohen is named after the founder of Tesco, and Cochrane was a theatrical impresario. The most interesting name is Friese Greene. A Brighton man, he was the father of the Claude Friese Greene whose films from the 1920s formed the basis of a BBC TV series earlier this year.

William himself was a pioneer of photography. In 1951, to mark the festival of Britain, a film called The Magic Box was produced. Its burden was that William Friese Greene had been the first man to photograph the moving image but been cruelly denied his place in history. The film starred just about every well-known British actor of the period – there is even a story that one of the Kray twins appeared as an extra.

In fact the idea behind the film was nonsense. William Friese Greene certainly did not invent cinematography, but at least he is remembered on a Brighton bus.

Reader’s voice: You were talking about books of Liberal Democrat essays.

Thank you. This year, after something of a lull, three such books have appeared. The Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors has produced an updated version of the 1980 classic The Theory and Practice of Community Politics. Several MPs have contributed to Britain After Blair – or This Isn’t the Orange Book 2, Dear me no, as it is more widely known. Finally Liberator magazine has brought out Liberalism: Something to Shout About.

I think this sudden proliferation of books is a thoroughly good thing. One of the striking thing about the fringe at recent Lib Dem Conferences has been that most of the fringe meetings promoting challenging new ideas have been organised by outside pressure groups. There has been far fewer such meetings originating from party groups. They seem to concentrate on training people how to fight elections or run councils. This is important work, but we need to be a thinking party too.

The other thing to report from the fringe is the arms race in catering. There are so many meetings now that you need free food and a popular speaker to have any chance of a decent turn out.

If you can’t provide Nick Clegg and a fish and chip supper, you may as well book a broom cupboard.

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